Over the last few months, Iâ€™ve been on another of my book binges â€“ helplessly buying and reading countless books of a genealogical nature. I reported some of my reactions in Curl Up With a Genealogical Mystery and in Genealogical Cozies. Many of you were kind enough to share your remarks as well, so now Iâ€™m at it again.
Genealogical Non-Genealogy Books
Over the years, Iâ€™ve written a fair bit about actual genealogy books, mostly of a how-to nature. But this binge is different. Iâ€™m on a quest to find books that arenâ€™t overtly genealogical, but that feature stories and themes that resonate with roots-seekers.
The good news is that there are a lot more books of this sort out there than I expected. Perhaps I was blind to them before, but Iâ€™m delighted to find so many that appeal in different ways. Recently, Iâ€™ve covered several genealogical cozies (lighthearted mysteries, for those who are new to the world of cozies), but for a change of pace, I thought Iâ€™d tackle a couple of non-fiction books.
The Big House
Published in 2003, this book by George Howe Colt was a National Book Award finalist, so that was my first clue that I was in for a good read. The complete title is The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, and that about sums it up.
Have you ever seen those sprawling, old mansions near the shore and wondered about them? What were they like inside? Who lived there? What stories they might have to tell? Well, this book is all about one of them.
Colt grew up going to a family summer home on Cape Cod. Built in 1903, it seemed to him that it had been there forever, but with the passing of generations and increasing upkeep costs, the house was in danger of leaving family hands. So Colt wrote what could almost be described as a biography of a house, and I was captivated.
Being of serf and peasant stock, I come from one of those families with virtually no family history. There were no Bibles or heirlooms to point me in the right direction. Everything Iâ€™ve learned has been from scratch. And as frustrating as thatâ€™s been, Iâ€™ve often wondered about folks at the opposite end of the spectrum–people who are surrounded with so much family history that itâ€™s overwhelming. Whatâ€™s it like being enveloped by centuriesâ€™ worth of documents and objects? Whatâ€™s it like when libraries have collections of your ancestorsâ€™ papers? Whatâ€™s it like when newspapers feature thousands of articles on your illustrious forebears? And just how do you deal with all of it?
Colt gave me a rare peek into this world, and I found it fascinating. The beach house thatâ€™s been in his family for a century is a museum of sorts, and he methodically picks through it all. I alternated between extremes of jealousy and sympathy, but could actually relate on some levels (such as the familyâ€™s obsession with tennis).
Does the house stay in the family? I canâ€™t reveal that! Youâ€™ll have to read it yourself, but I can confidently tell you that it will be a worthwhile investment of your time.
Living Among Headstones
I guess itâ€™s the voyeur in me (I admit that Iâ€™m one of those who likes to walk at night, looking in all the lighted windows to see how others live). First, I had to see what life was like for those upper class families who own seaside mansions, and then I had to probe into the life of a cemetery sexton. In Living Among Headstones: Life in a Country Cemetery, Shannon Applegate tells of her experiences taking over the Pioneer Graveyard in Yoncalla, Oregon. Itâ€™s five acres, with plenty of trees, and also happens to hold several generations of her own family.
This one was an eye-opener. It never occurred to me just how much work it is to maintain even a relatively small, rural cemetery. If youâ€™re not coordinating with conglomerate funeral homes and award-winning monument makers, youâ€™re probably grooming trees, marking sites for gravediggers, fretting over the settling of old graves, fielding letters from genealogists, coping with actual or wannabe juvenile delinquents, rescuing a strangerâ€™s cremains, and dealing with death threats. Wait a minute. Dealing with death threats? Yup. Apparently, some folks feel reeaaally strongly about plastic flowers and other memorabilia being removed from gravesites during clean-up efforts.
Applegate is a thoughtful writer and simply a good person. Itâ€™s comforting to think of someone like her protecting one of countless country cemeteries that could otherwise be forgotten and neglected. Iâ€™m glad she decided to share her story in this book. I only hope there are more Applegates out there.
What Should I Read Next?
Isnâ€™t this a great gig Iâ€™ve got going? Lounging around, reading books, and then writing articles about them? I tell my husband that Iâ€™m working, but Iâ€™m not sure heâ€™s convinced! So which book should be my companion for my next lolling-on-the-couch session? If youâ€™ve got any suggestions, please post a comment to this article. Iâ€™ll keep an eye out for my next â€œhomeworkâ€ assignment.
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through www.genetealogy.com, www.honoringourancestors.com, and http://megansrootsworld.blogspot.com/.
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through http://www.genetealogy.com, http://www.honoringourancestors.com, and http://megansrootsworld.blogspot.com/.
Upcoming Events Where Megan Will Be Speaking
- Tidewater Genealogical Society
(5 August 2006, Newport News, VA)
- David Ackerman Descendants 1662
(21 October 21 2006, Ramapo, NJ)
- 2006 Genealogy Conference and Cruise, hosted by Wholly Genes Software http://www.whollygenes.com/cruise2006.htm
(11-18 November 2006, Mexican Riviera)
Details and links to upcoming events:
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